Dala’s Blue Angels commemorates 10 years of raising child-abuse awareness

By Sarah Brown
Lebanon Local
Hayden Briese, 8, started a dance party April 2 when she handed Lebanon Police Chief Frank Stevenson a $100 bill during the 10th annual Walk a Mile for a Child fundraiser at Academy Square.

POLICE CHIEF Frank Stevenson, center, shares a dance with Hayden Briese during the 10th annual Walk a Mile For a Child event on April 2. Photos by Sarah Brown

Stevenson danced on stage with the Strawberry Court at last year’s event to boost donations, and Hayden’s impromptu gesture this year made it hard for him to turn down the opportunity to do so again. Donors pressed more bills into his hands, and attendees flooded the stage to join the apprehensive commander.
This year’s event – organized by volunteers of Dala’s Blue Angels, which works to promote the well-being of children – honored 7-week-old Sandra Lee of Lebanon, who died March 28, 2020, from malnutrition. Her parents, Kristian Ray Lee and Shantell Ann Marie Swiercz, were sentenced that December to six years in prison for second-degree manslaughter.
Walk a Mile for a Child is held every April for National Child Abuse Prevention Month. The Lebanon Police Department will display a large blue metal ribbon inscribed with Sandra’s name, adding to ribbons for other recognized Oregon victims over the last 25 years: 3-year-old Tesslynn O’Cull of Springfield, who died in 1997; 3-year-old Karly Sheehan of Corvallis (2005); and 1-year-old Asher Carter of Lebanon (2019).
“Let’s face it: Child abuse is horrific and it makes people cringe,” Blue Angels founder and namesake Dala Johnson said. “But just because it’s uncomfortable and not something we want to talk about does not mean we can avoid it.”

STRAWBERRY COURT members take the lead as the 200-plus attendees wait for the signal to begin walking.

The Lebanon Police Department handled as many as 39 child-abuse cases in 2021, an increase from 23 in 2020. The department has looked into 13 so far this year.
The Dala’s Blue Angels and Walk a Mile For a Child event developed 10 years ago following a candlelight vigil on the Linn County Circuit Court steps in Albany for O’Cull. When Johnson, a community policing officer for Lebanon, returned from the event, she told Stevenson she wanted to do something to help prevent child abuse in her own city.
“That was 10 years ago,” she said. “We’ve come a long way.”

BLUE BALLOONS ARE RELEASED one-by-one by Dena Blacklaw, above, and Dala Johnson in memory of young lives lost.

Some 70 participants attended the first walk in 2012, helping to raise $2,000. More than 240 showed up this year, bringing in $25,000. The Blue Angels group has raised about $112,000 through various efforts over the last decade. All donations have been distributed to ABC House, the Center Against Rape and Domestic Violence (CARDV), Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), Lebanon Area Mental Health Alliance Corp. and Family Tree Relief Nursery. Those organizations serve as child advocacy centers in Linn and Benton counties, provide education to raise awareness and prevent child abuse.

“Our children deserve and need to live their lives free from abuse, violence and neglect,” Johnson said. “Child abuse prevention requires our increased awareness as a community.”
She’s retiring from her nonprofit at the end of the year, handing the reins to Dena Burian Blacklaw.
“I feel fully confident she will carry on my legacy,” Johnson said. “I’m honored that she’s not only an angel, but she’s my best friend.”